By Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy
I often spend part of my Sunday mornings reflecting upon the week: What has moved me, what has brought me joy, and ways I can show up differently, better, in my work and life for myself and for others. This Sunday was different due to the level of intensity and depth of emotion, and I’m not certain how to unpack it other than to write.
I returned home Saturday evening from the Women Moving Millions Summit in Seattle with both a heavy heart — for the staggering issues discussed during the Summit — and a heart full of hope for all of the brilliant and passionate leaders working to solve them. I’m struggling with how to reconcile the simultaneous and opposing intensity of emotion, and also the feeling of inadequacy that surfaces when I’m in the company of giants. My inner critic (i.e. my crappy inner roommate) shouts: “You’re not doing enough!” and a wiser, gentler voice whispers “You are enough”. At the end of the day I know that to both do enough and be enough I need to practice what I preach: If there is one piece of advice I give clients when I sense them nearing burnout it is to — please, please — “Protect the Asset” (they are the asset) — the world needs them to be grounded and vital.
I find myself saying that phrase a lot to people working on big global issues. What drives us so hard?? A couple of dots I’ve connected is that what many of us in the social sector, including countless philanthropists, have in common is that we’ve come from difficult backgrounds that have involved a great deal of suffering, and therefore cannot bear the suffering of others. But I wonder if in my case, if the drive is also there to outrun the heartbreak of that suffering (my own and the world’s). I used to quip that I don’t dwell in the suffering because I have too much to do to alleviate it, and at any rate I’d just be adding my own pain to the mix and that wasn’t what the world needed. I had an awakening at the Summit that will take some time to process, but at its core I know it will take the kind of courage to not quip, but feel. How did I arrive here?
The Summit’s theme was “The Power of Courage”, and courage was indeed woven throughout the sessions in terms of bold action and the life and death risks involved in speaking truth to power, be it about gun control, race, climate change, or equality. But what is sitting heavy on my chest this morning is that I also witnessed a number of deeply vulnerable stories that led people to the journey of bringing about change. Those stories aren’t mine to share so I won’t do so, and I also feel it would be diminishing something sacred to try to capture something that can only be a felt experience. But it reminded me of a favorite Rumi quote: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” And so many that I had the honor to be with — the WMM members, guests, and speakers — are truly lit from within and are using that light as a beacon for others. It is holy to witness.
There were also hard moments for me personally during those three days in Seattle: several mirrors were held up to me around race and unconscious bias, how I present as an affluent white woman and what that affords me in this culture (but at my core still very much feel like the excluded “have not” girl on food stamps), around feeling inadequate in a room of freakishly smart and bold leaders facing ridicule and death threats for years and doing the work anyway, and around using hard-won resilience to outrun unfelt despair (that demands its pound of flesh sooner or later anyway).
We know the root word of courage is Latin’s “cour” or “heart”, and what comes to mind for me when I hear that is lionheart, bravery. But what I know now is that a deeper layer of courage is more tender and far scarier – that of being vulnerable to yourself and to others in a way that leaves you feeling naked and exposed — but doing it anyway because that is the only path to true freedom and true connection, and being included and loved for who you really are.
I’ve been involved in the nonprofit sector in some form or fashion for over 22 years, always bringing a philanthropist’s heart and a strategic mind to help bring about change. But what was revealed to me in Seattle is that we are more powerful if we bring our whole selves to the work, including our wounds and our light; in short, our humanity.